The Last Supper, a mural painting by Leonardo da Vinci, depicts the last supper of Jesus with his disciples, told in the gospel of John 13:21, as Jesus announces to his party that one of the disciples would betray him; each apostle’s reaction, ranging from shock to anger, is immortalized.
The painting was done as a mural in Milan’s Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, and while it’s one of the world’s most famous paintings, it’s also one of the most delicate, for environmental factors and intentional damage means very little of the original painting exists today. The painting was humidity-prone, and it being done on a thin exterior wall did nothing to help the paint adhere properly, aiding in deterioration soon after its completion; sixty years later, da Vinci biographers and preservationists would state that the painting was “ruined” and “unrecognizable” as a result. A doorway was cut through the center base of the painting and later bricked off, explaining the odd rectangular arch seen where Jesus’s feet should be. It it shown, in earlier copies by da Vinci’s assistants, Jesus’ feet were in the position similar to that of his eventual crucifixion. Attempts to protect the painting from further deterioration proved futile, for a curtain intended to shield from the elements would instead trap moisture, causing paint to peel when pulled back.
Several restorations have been made to the painting, the earliest in 1726 by Michelangelo Bellotti, who painted missing sections and varnished the mural. Another restoration attempt in 1770 by Giuseppe Mazzo resulted in stripping away Bellotti’s work and a repainting job. His work would be interrupted, however, amid public upheaval. Stefano Barezzi was approached to remove the painting from the wall in 1821, as he was experienced in removing frescos. He damaged the painting’s center before realizing it wasn’t a standard fresco, later repairing the damage with glue. Luigi Cavenaghi cleaned the mural after an extensive study of its structure between 1901 and 1908, and in 1924, Oreste Silvestri followed up on cleaning, stabilizing parts with stucco. During WWII, the mural was protected by a structure that prevented bomb splinters when the refectory was bombed on August 15, 1943. The Last Supper went through a major restoration in the late 1970s, which wouldn’t be completed until 1999. Once it was proven the painting could not be moved to a controlled environment, the space was closed off and turned into one, with windows being bricked off. Detailed study of the painting and comparison to other works determined further preservation tactics, though some areas were deemed unrestorable.
The Last Supper has been parodied and recreated in art, film, and television. A sculpted salt mural copy of The Last Supper resides in Poland’s Wieliczka Salt Mine; an oil on canvas copy from the 16th century is housed in the abbey of Tongerlo, Antwerp, Belgium, showing many details lost in the original; Salvador Dali’s version, The Sacrament of The Last Supper, is considered one of the most popular paintings in Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art collection, and Andy Warhol was commissioned to produce a series of paintings based on The Last Supper. This collection was exhibited in Milan, and would be his last before his death. According to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, there’s speculation that in the painting, John the Apostle — sitting to the right of Jesus in the painting — is actually Mary Magdalene. This claim was copied from and contested by fellow authors and art historians, two of which state that “if he [John] looks effeminate and needs a haircut, so does James, the second figure on the left, the one with a sort of Bette Midler look about him.” Other speculations imply messages and music are hidden in the painting, with hands and loaves of bread being interpreted as notes on a staff, forming a musical composition.
However one interprets the painting, there’s a lot to be admired in and taken away from The Last Supper, one of Leonardo da Vinci’s most vivid and most delicate masterpieces.